Deep in the Brecon Beacons, ex-SAS staff host a bi-annual march replicating special forces selection. Civilians unhinged enough to be interested gather in their hundreds. Our writer, Jack Hart, was amongst them.
The Fan Dance doesn’t start with an air-horn, or a claxon, or even the word ‘go’; it starts with an explosion. It could be a flashbang, mock grenade or just a small explosive – I’m no military man – but the noise it releases reverberates around the Welsh hills and cracks through your bones, particularly when you’re not expecting it. Naturally, the staff at the event don’t even flinch; they’re ex-special forces to a man. It’s an intimidating start to a race.
But then, this isn’t really a race in the classic sense of a running event or off-road run. The Fan Dance is a route march that follows in the footsteps of SAS selection applicants (quite literally; allegedly, the real deal was held less than a week before we set off). It’s a 16-mile route that ascends Pen y Fan, the tallest summit in these hills, twice and is completed carrying a 40lb Bergen, and while wearing hiking boots. It is still a race in the sense that there are prizes for first place finishers, event photography and official times. But the niceties end there.
Nervous anticipation gripped the crowd as we assembled by the iconic red phone box at the foot of Pen y Fan. There were said to be 60mph winds at the summit, courtesy of an incoming storm that would close in later that afternoon; all the more reason to make good time on the initial ascent. With the aforementioned explosion wafting smoke across the valley, we set our gazes upwards and marched into the fog.
Covering a mix of stone paths, boggy ground and frozen dirt, we bagged Pen y Fan in semi-respectable time, though the climb sapped energy from our legs with the Bergens in tow. We immediately set off down Jacob’s Ladder to push on to the Roman Road. Conditions were treacherous at the summit, and the Ladder itself was completely frozen so going was slow. Leaving the mountain proved a task in itself, with some marshy ground making the going tough, but we forged ahead, keen to test ourselves against this revered ground. Once the descent was made, we faced a three mile march to the halfway point before turning back and tackling it all in reverse.
The return journey was, unsurprisingly, a tougher ordeal than heading out, and not just because we know what lay ahead. Blisters formed on our heels thanks to running in hiking boots and our packs’ shoulder straps began to chafe. Before long, we resorted to running for one minute then walking the next and repeating ad nauseum until the outline of Pen y Fan began to loom in the distance. Ascending via Jacob’s Ladder is a far steeper climb than from the road, and we felt every laboured step of it.
Reaching the finish line felt like a victory in itself: the route we had just completed has been used for decades as a benchmark of fitness for SAS soldiers, and though our time was not within their range, it was enough to know that we had given our all on the same ground. And, to be fair, we weren’t that far off.
For off-road runners looking for a new type of event, or anyone looking to test their fitness, The Fan Dance presents a very different and very formidable challenge. It’s a well-run and well-attended event with winter and summer editions, held close to the town of Brecon in South Wales, where there’s ample accommodation and easy access by road and trains to Abergavenny, on the Brecon Beacon’s south-eastern edge.